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Beyond environmental risks: the social dimension of deep-sea mining

Plenty is starting to be written in scientific literature, and starting to be discussed by the media and legislators, about the environmental risks of deep-sea mining. But so far there seems to be less consideration of the "social dimension" of deep-sea mining - and I think that deserves attention too.

In December 1970, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution (number 2749/XXV) that "the area of the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources, are the common heritage of mankind, the exploration and exploitation of which shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole".

That resolution helped to lay the foundation for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as quoted above in its Preamble. And in turn, UNCLOS is the foundation for the UN International Seabed Authority (ISA), which exists to administer deep-sea mining in international waters (as examined in a previous post).

But what does "common heritage of mankind" (which needs updating to "common heritage of humanity") actually mean in practice when it comes to deep-sea mining? As we shall see, it was founded on an assumption that we now know to be incorrect for some deep-sea resources, and the spirit in which it was intended perhaps does not match the mechanism that now exists to enact it.

Some of our common heritage

In 1967, Arvid Pardo made a radical proposal as Malta's delegate to the United Nations. At that time, research estimated that the ocean floor held almost limitless mineral resources, with enough of various metals to meet global demand for many millennia (Pardo's source was John Mero's The Mineral Resources of the Sea from 1965).

Pardo saw those potentially vast resources as an opportunity to redress some of the injustices of history. He proposed that benefits from exploiting that mineral wealth should be shared, particularly with developing countries. His idea was a noble one: as our "common heritage", the enormous resources of the deep ocean could help to lift those in poverty to a better future, and create a more equitable global society of nations.

Pardo's principle was adopted in the goals of UNCLOS, which are to:

"promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans, the equitable and efficient utilization of their resources, the conservation of their living resources, and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment"

and thereby contribute to:

"the realization of a just and equitable international economic order which takes into account the interests and needs of mankind as a whole and, in particular, the special interests and needs of developing countries".

Unfortunately, we now know that the assumption about the deep sea being able to meet global demands for various metals for thousands of years is erroneous. For example, all the world's known active and inactive deep-sea hydrothermal vents contain a total of around 30 million tonnes of copper and zinc, while around 19 million tonnes of copper and 12 million tonnes of zinc are mined each year on land (numbers pulled together in this paper by Cindy Van Dover). Rather than a seemingly bottomless treasure-chest that could be shared to create a more equitable world, some of the mineral deposits of the ocean floor are a more limited resource than Pardo envisioned.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents

Arguments about "resource potential" aside, however, exactly how will deep-sea mining generate wealth to share with developing countries? When the UN International Seabed Authority issues a licence to a "contractor" to develop deep-sea mining in area of seafloor, the contractor is obliged to identify and release patches of seabed in that area back to the ISA containing resources of equal value to those that the contractor plans to develop for themselves. The ISA has then created an arm called "the Enterprise", at least on paper, to exploit the resources in those returned patches and share the profits with beneficiaries such as developing countries.

But the UN International Seabed Authority is not a deep-sea mining operator: it has no ships or equipment of its own. It can therefore only hope to carry out its "Enterprise" function in partnership with actual mining companies. And they don't work pro bono.

If we look at the deal that deep-sea mining company Nautilus Minerals has with the government of Papua New Guinea for mining hydrothermal vents in that country's territorial waters, it's 70-30 in the mining company's favour when it comes to sharing the profits. We might therefore imagine a mining company wanting a similar deal for any "Enterprise" partnership with the ISA. And incidentally, Nautilus Minerals has approached the ISA as a potential "Enterprise" partner for the manganese nodule zone of the eastern Pacific.

So there is potential for mining companies to get two bites of the "common heritage" apple: once as the contractor for a mining licence, and then again as a partner with the ISA for its "Enterprise" function. And if the ISA's partnerships for the "Enterprise" are anything less than 50-50, then mining companies stand to benefit more than anyone else from the "common heritage of mankind" as delivered through "the Enterprise".

Some of the significant shareholders in deep-sea mining companies are ultra-rich individuals, very much in the one percent of people who own more than fifty percent of the world's wealth. So through the "Enterprise" of the ISA, the poor may become slightly less poor, but the very rich are likely to get even richer - and the gap between them may widen, not narrow, as a result. That outcome would seem to be almost the opposite of what Parvo had in mind when he spoke at the UN in 1967.

More of our common heritage

Here we are then, heading towards regulations for the first "exploitation" licences for deep-sea mining in international waters, with a "common heritage" principle that may have been based on false assumptions about resource potential and which has seemingly been warped out-of-shape in its execution. Perhaps that should give us pause for thought, in addition the environmental risks that we do not yet fully understand.

As a coda, let's take a look at another social argument often proposed in favour deep-sea mining: that it will be less harmful, in direct social impacts, than mining on land. There is no doubt about social problems associated with mining on land, such as child labour, unsafe conditions for workers, human rights abuses, and corruption. But will starting to mine the deep sea alleviate those problems? Mining on land will not cease because of deep-sea mining, nor will it necessarily diminish because of it, as the overall demand for metals will continue to rise with global population growth and the spread of development.

One might argue that using deep-sea mining to meet some of the growing demand for metals could reduce the overall social impact of mining, compared with meeting it all by increasing mining on land. But we're told that a key driver for deep-sea mining is that land-based mining alone cannot meet growing demand - so the growth of one is not necessarily linked to the other. The argument then really becomes "we're doing something harmful on land, so let's start also doing something less harmful somewhere else". The latter does not necessarily tackle the former, and linking the two on that basis looks like a piece of casuistry.

Let's instead imagine possible consequences of not mining the deep ocean for now:
- perhaps greater impetus to improve social impacts of mining on land (if that's the only kind of mining available, and given increased consumer awareness/demand for ethical supply chains);
- impetus to innovate new technology that doesn't require the same amount or type of resources (recently highlighted in this Nature comment article; deep-sea mining isn't going to happen soon enough to supply the cobalt needed for the switch to electric vehicles that several countries have promised, and materials scientists are working to develop new batteries instead).

Jon Copley, August 2018